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Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau – feature review

August 6, 2015

LOST SOUL: THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY’S ISLAND OF DR MOREAU

When dreams become nightmares and insanity in the jungle.

lost soul richard stanley

Directed by David Gregory. Featuring appearances by Richard Stanley, Bob Shaye, Edward R. Pressman, Marco Hofschneider, Graham ‘Grace’ Walker and Fairuza Balk. Year of release: 2014. Running time: 97 minutes.

A candid documentary feature recounting the craziness surrounding the making       of the notorious cinematic trainwreck that was the 1996 adaptation of HG Wells’ classic novel.

As regular visitors to my blog will no doubt be aware, I seem to have this perverse fascination with disasterously troubled film productions (Alien 3, The Time Guardian, Piranha II, Supernova, Saturn 3) and I’m not entirely sure why this is. Perhaps it’s because of all the arts, filmmaking is undoubtedly the most complex – inviting the possibility of failure at every turn, so when things do go disasterously wrong, there are lessons to be learned.

And it struck me while watching this doco just how similar the turn of events were     in the making of Moreau to the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of the much earlier Saturn 3 – a relatively untested visionary helmer’s passion project which begins as     a low budget calling card to Hollywood balloons into a much larger production with     the attachment of a star – only to be derailed by the petulant behaviour of said star; leading to the original director’s firing after a short time and his replacement with an old gun helmer who has no passion for or understanding of the film he has been charged with getting in the can.

Aside from my fascination with movies with troubled production histories, I’ve also been a huge admirer of Richard Stanley – both the man and his work. Stanley began his career in the late 80s helming distinctly visceral music videos for such bands as The Fields of the Nephilim and Public Image Limited, but came to wider prominence in the early 90s with with two stylish indie features: the cyberpunk rogue droid-on-the-loose siege thriller Hardware, as well as the Sergio Leone-inspired horror western road movie Dust Devil. The Island of Dr Moreau was meant to be his big break into the Hollywood big time.

Stanley had been enamored with Wells’ book ever since being forbade by his parents from reading an 1896 first edition he found on his father’s shelf as a child. And so penning and helming his own film adaptation had always been a long-held dream of his. With genre legend Edward R. Pressman (Conan The Barbarian, The Crow) on board as producer and co-writing the screenplay with Michael Herr (Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket) with revisions by Walon Green (The Wild Bunch, Sorcerer), it seemed as though Stanley’s dream was becoming a reality.

moreau concept art house of pain

Originally conceived as a modestly budgeted $8 million production, Stanley’s initial choice for the three leads were Jurgen Prochnow as Moreau, David Thewlis as Montgomery and Rob Morrow as Prendick. Once New Line Cinema came on board with financing and signed screen icon Marlon Brando for the titular role, this then attracted A-listers Bruce Willis and James Woods (both eager to work with Brando) who expressed interest in playing Prendick and Montgomery respectively – increasing the budget substantially to an estimated $35 million.

With the signing of Brando, and fearing Moreau was now too great a risk to entrust to a relatively untested helmer (now that is was shaping up to be a major prestige event motion picture), New Line then made the decision to replace Stanley with Roman Polanski. However, Stanley caught wind of this and wrangled a private meeting with Brando at the star’s Hollywood mansion, where, amusingly, Brando turned up the heating so as to send Stanley’s appointed studio representative off to sleep; allowing the pair to talk unhindered. As it turned out, Brando took such a shine to the young filmmaker that he then demanded that Stanley be re-instated as director or else he would walk. The studio had no choice but to acquiesce.

It could be argued that the seeds of Stanley’s demise were sown with the surprise departure of Bruce Willis – who was suddenly unable to leave the US for the six months it would take to shoot the film in North Queensland Australia, due to impending divorce settlement proceedings with Demi Moore. With Willis off the picture, notoriously recalcitrant actor Val Kilmer (Willow, The Doors) was pursued for the role; as his star was on the rise thanks to his essaying of the titular character in Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever. Shortly before principal photography, however, Kilmer was served divorce papers from his estranged wife Joanne Whalley; using this as a reason to demand that Stanley retool his shooting schedule so as to give the star 40% fewer shooting days to complete his role – or else he’d walk. Fearing the sudden departure of Kilmer could potentially shelve the project indefinitely, Stanley proposed a compromise: that Kilmer might take on the supporting role of Montgomery instead (which offered the 40% less shooting days he was demanding). Kilmer agreed and suddenly James Woods was out, leaving Rob Morrow (Stanley’s original choice for the role of Prendick) to fill the lead.

From the outset there were whisperings in the press that it was Val Kilmer’s atrocious behaviour towards Stanley (with his ceaseless criticising of every one of Stanley’s creative decisions and refusing to play the scenes as written – essentially undermining Stanley’s authority) which lead to the director being fired within in the first few days of shooting. And so it is heartening to finally hear first-hand from witnesses who were there that this was pretty much the case.

Adding to Stanley’s woes; on the first day of shooting when, with Brando a no-show (himself dealing with the fallout from his daughter Cheyenne’s shock suicide), Stanley was forced to shoot the disembarking of Prendick aboard the freighter out at sea – in the middle of gale-force weather conditions. In Stanley’s defence, conditions were so terrible aboard the wildly rocking ship – he had no choice but to abandon his carefully storyboarded shots and grab any coverage he could ‘guerrilla-style’ with multiple cameras and hope for the best. Weather conditions were so bad in fact that much of Moreau’s compound set was flattened by the driving rain which lashed the North Queensland coast for days. During a screening of Stanley’s first few days of rushes back in LA, the execs at New Line could not make head nor tail of what they were seeing and felt the scenes as shot were veering way off script. The arguably rash decision was then made to fire Stanley immediately. Although the documentary does present something of a balanced view with regard to New Line’s own concerns, to be fair – the studio’s lack of back-up and support for Stanley (which they now sheepishly admit to in hindsight) did nothing to help the situation.

According to Fairuza Balk in the documentary (she played feline love interest Aissa), Stanley spiraled into an overwhelming state of shock and despair once he was advised by his agent via a phone call that he had been let go (appallingly, the studio didn’t even have the good grace to let Stanley know face-to-face that he had been fired). Stanley’s immediate reaction – admittedly vindictive – was to shred the bulk of his documents and art pertaining to the production. In repsonse to an idle, off-the-cuff threat, made in jest by Stanley (as he was being escorted to the airport) – that he would hold a tribal ceremony and cast a curse over the production (a threat which was misrepresented as him planning to burn down the set) – Stanley was warned not to come within 40 kilometres of the production – or risk not being paid (New Line having agreed to pay his full fee in exchange for his media silence).

Following Stanley’s sudden departure, Pressman and New Line scrambled to find a replacement director – someone crazy enough to take the helm with only a week’s notice. After their first choice Philip Kaufman (Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, The Right Stuff) point blank refused involvement in what was clearly a career-derailing trainwreck, veteran journeyman director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds) stepped up to the plate. While at first glance an odd choice to helm an effects-heavy genre film (Frankenheimer’s only brush with genre was the abysmal mutant bear eco-horror movie Prophecy) it is revealed in the doco that he already had had a history of stepping into helm troubled productions on the fly (Birdman of Alcatraz, The Train). As for Frankenheimer’s reason for taking on a project which held no interest for him (something which has always eluded me) – it turns out his primary demand, aside from a truckload of money, was a three picture deal with New Line – which, possibly due to Moreau’s critical and box office drubbing, is something which never ultimately eventuated.

Meanwhile Rob Morrow – who was desperate to get off the picture when things begin to go askew – was subsequently replaced (somewhat ironically) by David Thewlis: Stanley’s original choice for Montgomery (although his character Prendick was suddenly renamed Douglas, as it was more manly sounding). Although Thewlis is absent from the documentary (most likely because he had no dealings with Stanley himself) – Rob Morrow does appear.

marlon brando as dr moreau 1996

There’s a delicious irony in that while certain outré concepts in Stanley’s original screenplay which had always rankled New Line (inter-species sex, cannibalism,     drug-fuelled Beast People parties) were excised when the more conservative Frankenheimer took the helm and rewrote the script; a whole other level of craziness was inadvertently introduced thanks to the mischevious meddling of Brando (who had finally shown up several weeks later than expected). Marlon Brando’s on-set antics on Moreau are legendary – his arrival on the set on the first day with painted white face and wearing a tent-like kaftan/nappy arrangement; his hilariously bizzare creative demands – like playing an entire scene with an ice bucket on his head and having the smallest man in the world (2 ft tall Nelson de la Roza) at his side in every scene dressed exactly like him (later parodied in South Park and the inspiration behind Mini-Me in the second and third Austin Powers movies). There is also Brando’s famous penchant for refusing to learn his lines, choosing instead to have his assistant read him his dialogue via an earpiece from his trailer (hilariously, his earpiece would also regularly pick up local police radio dispatches – which he would then relay, as an aside, in the middle of a take). It is suggested in the documentary that Brando’s outrageous (if good-humored) behaviour was just Brando fucking with the production for a laugh; purely to see how much he could get away with. And it’s interesting to ponder whether or not Brando would have kept his bizarre creative interventions in check if Stanley had remained at the helm (I personally like to think so – going by Brando’s obvious respect for the young director).

German actor Marco Hofschneider (who played Moreau’s educated man-beast assistant M’Ling) features heavily in the doco and virtually steals the show with a series of amusing anecdotes of his dealings with both Kilmer and Brando (his pitch-perfect impersonations of Brando are priceless). Also amusing (and the pinnacle of just how bat-shit crazy things became both on and off the set) is the stand-off between Brando and Kilmer; where each of them refused to leave their respective trailers until the other did first – wasting pretty much an entire night of shooting. Brando made no secret of his contempt for his co-star – which must have rankled Kilmer no end, as Brando was an influential hero in his eyes.

moreau beast people

Directed by the co-founder of the much-loved boutique genre label Severin, David Gregory, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau     is the first feature-length documentary produced and distributed under the Severin banner. And despite the absence of key players such as Val Kilmer (no surprises there) – Gregory has assembled an impressive array of interviewees: cast and     crew who actually witnessed events unfold first-hand and, in some cases, were directly involved in some of the more crazy off-set antics (such as Fairuza Balk’s thwarted escape attempt to leave the country – when she’d finally had enough of Frankenheimer’s ceaseless bullying). I first became aware of the troubled production of The Island of Dr Moreau from reading David Hughes’ feature article ‘Paradise Lost’ in the December 1996 issue of Empire Magazine back in the day. And the film also had a chapter dedicated to it in Hughes’ subsequent book The Greatest Sci-Fi Films Never Made. But, as the experience of being fired from his passion project has long been a painful chapter in Stanley’s life, his detailed account of events as they happened has pretty much remained untold – till now.

Those who have listened to Stanley’s commentary tracks for both Hardware and Dust Devil and who have seen the extensive interviews and bonus materials included on the Subversive Cinema five disk special edition set of the latter; will already know what an eloquent and engaging character Stanley is when talking about his own unique take on the world and his many unusual experiences. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of genre and a life-long fascination with the esoteric (particularly witchcraft) which stems from his travels as a child with his anthropoligist mother through the wilds of Africa; documenting tribal culture and magical practices. Stanley is also an engaging yarn-spinner – being able to capture and hold the listener’s attention with his unbridled enthusiam for whatever subject is at hand.

richard stanley lost soul

As the documentary follows the timeline of the movie’s production, Stanley does tend to disappear halfway through (once Frankenheimer is installed as director) – only to reappear towards the end when he sneaks back onto the set in the guise of one of     the masked Beast People extras. After he was fired, Stanley and his then girlfriend, Kate, had basically ‘gone native’ and spent several weeks hiding out in the North Queensland rain forest, fishing and living off the land – before Stanley stumbled upon a renegade camp of feral extras from the film; reconnecting with other crewmembers and prompting the audacious plot to sneak him back onto the set. It appears he infiltrated the production in this way in order to satisfy his curiosity and observe first-hand the ensuing chaos under Frankenheimer’s helm. As Stanley tells it, it was an extremely surreal experience ending up playing scenes for real as one of the very characters he had written.

It’s easy to see why parallels have been drawn between Gregory’s film and the grand daddy of all ‘making of’ documentary features Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (the making of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now) – for jungle isolation does indeed appear to have a strange effect on the human psyche – inciting feral behaviour in even the most civilized of individuals after a time. There is plenty of home video footage included in Lost Soul revealing the drug-fuelled parties the crew indulged in between sporadic calls to the set to illustrate this.

Interestingly, aside from Stanley himself, the interviewee who was most disappointed the filmmaker was unable to realize his vision is actress Fairuza Balk. We get a real sense from her unbridled enthusiasm; she absolutely understood what Stanley was attempting to achieve with his vision for the film and her candor regarding how abymsmally Stanley was treated by the studio is perhaps one of the documentary’s most memorable takeaways. She’s also not backward in coming forward with regard to Frankenheimer’s tyrannical mistreatment and bullying of virtually everyone on the crew – making him the most despised person on set (tellingly not a single person interviewed – aside from his long-time AD – has anything positive to say about him). His complete lack of regard for the local indigenous culture and his antiquated colonial attitude towards the Aboriginals is also very telling and makes for interesting subtext (particularly in contrast to Stanley’s deep-seated reverence towards the traditional land-owners and his inclusion of them in the production).

Disappointingly (although understanably) Stanley hasn’t helmed another feature since losing Moreau. And it’s sad to imagine all the great Richard Stanley films we could have enjoyed over the last nineteen years had circumstances been different. Fairuza Balk mentions she did run into him a couple of years following the release of Moreau and Stanley was unsure at the time whether he even wanted to direct another feature again. He has been keeping busy though; making a series of documentaries and short films and penning a terrifically prescient sequel to Hardware (which is readily available on the internet). And he has recently written an adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s classic tale The Color Out Of Space – which he hopes to put into production before too long. So, with a little luck, the interest generated by this documentary might mean we’ll be seeing another feature from him soon.

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau is a hugely entertaining and remarkably well-balanced documentary which, although tragic, is also extremely funny. It is also a fascinating insight into the age-old clash of art versus commerce and a sobering demonstration of just how easily the unchecked hubris     of some Hollywood stars can sometimes send well-intentioned and exciting projects so terribly awry.

4.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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9 Comments
  1. Fascinating post mate. Looks like that film was a nightmare to make. Never fails to shock me how badly the studios behave and the horror stories that come out of shoots. You’d think they would have figured it out by now. Bad planning seems so common. I read the other day that Prometheus 2 looks to be shooting next spring, and I recalled how the first one seemed to have been shot with an unfinished script (just hope they learn by that). I recall how Alien 3 was being rewritten even while the sets were being built. What is the producer doing at times like that and how come he doesn’t get fired (and why does the director later get the blame afterwards instead?).

    • gregory moss permalink

      Cheers Ian! But, Oh God – don’t get me started on Prometheus again! I read Spaights’ original draft ‘Alien Engineers’ just the other day – and it made me weep just how much better that movie could have been if they’d only shot that version instead. As far as I can tell – the worst thing a producer can do is replace a director mid-stream (it very rarely ends well). In my humble opinion – part of a producer’s role is to support the vision of the director they have hired. New Line seem to have had reservations about some of the more lurid aspects of Stanley’s draft (which is a rock solid read by the way) from the very beginning – and it appears they were just waiting for an excuse to fire him and tone it down. You can find Stanley’s original draft on the net if you search for it. Actually, it’s probably worth reading it prior to watching the doco – as it fills in a lot of gaps and gives you a deeper understanding of what Stanley was striving for. 🙂

  2. Oh – this sounds fascinating! Excellent post – I have to see this! 🙂 I adore Hardware (and keep annoying people by telling them to watch it). I’ve been trying to get a hold of Dust Devil for years… Anyway – I love the sound of this! Sounds like it would be a great watch with another on my list – the Jodorowsky Dune documentary. 🙂

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks! Yeah, absolutely this would make a perfect double feature with Jodo’s Dune (I love me a good ‘making of’ doco). 🙂 And it’s great to see you’re spreading the Stanley love with Hardware. Dust Devil is quite different in tone – but it definitely has the Stanley mark. I’d love to see him be granted the opportunity to direct another feature. Fingers crossed for Color Out Of Space!

      • I’ll definitely be watching this – going to see if I can track it down. Also kind of want to watch The Island of Dr Moreau now too! lol 🙂

      • gregory moss permalink

        Hahaha! Yeah – it seems to be having that effect. I haven’t seen it since back in the day. I tried tracking down a physical copy of Moreau in my local area – but couldn’t find it anywhere. It would be hilarious if all this interest put it back in the charts again. 🙂

      • Lol. I won’t go out of my way to track it down but I’ll definitely watch it if it happens to be on TV or something. 😉

  3. Skylab20 permalink

    Great analysis Mr. Moss! When I first heard about this documentary (Netflix), I thought how can someone pinpoint such a specific subject I’m interested in…and THEN make a documentary about it?! The catastrophe that surrounded this movie production became more interesting than the movie itself. Although, I was thirteen when the film was released and being a huge Kilmer and Brando fan, I enjoyed it. I still do as an adult but with a different perspective.

    I thoroughly enjoyed Lost Soul and instantly became a huge Richard Stanley fan. I’ve since watched Hardware and Dust Devil, both on Netflix. I love his vision and he is an endlessly fascinating person to listen to.

    I strongly believe that Richard Stanley would received a different experience in Hollywood today. Big movie stars are not as favored as they were then and screenplays/creators/directors are better utilized and treated now.

    Thanks again, always enjoy opinions from like-minded folks!

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks Colin! It’s great to see the release of this doco has renewed interest in Stanley and his works. And it seems his version of ‘The Color Out Of Space’ is definitely going ahead – so we will finally get to see another Stanley film! 🙂

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